As a Mennonite who reads and writes poems, I should be the perfect reader and cheerleader for A Cappella, Ann Hostetler's new anthology of Mennonite poetry. I do, in fact, like the poems in the book. Furthermore, I personally know and like some of its featured poets. Why, then, does this book make me uncomfortable?
Maybe it's my suspicion toward anthologies in general. Anthologies aim to present the best work by the best of a certain group of artists. Compare them to those TV ads selling CDs with only the top songs of certain genres in certain bygone decades. Hit songs are great, but I remember listening to my favorite singers' albums and finding joy in the discovery of subtleties, variations, successes, and failures. When reading poetry for pleasure, I like to work through a whole book by a single author, to struggle through the mundane in anticipation of the exquisite. Too much perfection is oppressive. Too many perfect poems put me out of the picture. Old-fashioned quilters know this--put one piece in upside down to keep you humble, to reflect your reality.
Although my bias says anthologies narrow the range of the real, I know they can also create new versions of reality. The choices anthologists make about content and arrangement greatly influence the message, not only of the individual parts, but also of the whole. When I read A Cappella, I can't just read the poets; I have to read the editor. What is Hostetler saying with this collection?
In her substantial Acknowledgments, Introduction, and Afterword sections, nearly twenty pages of prose, Hostetler lays out her vision for the book. She begins by defining "anthology" as "a form of community in print" (xiii). I am tempted to emphasize the word "form" to reinforce my perception of editor as creator, but I think Hostetler is emphasizing the word "community" here. "Community" seems to be the model of reality she wants to present through the anthology she created.
Here's where I get most uncomfortable. It's not that I don't value community and acknowledge its interlocking layers undergirding my life. It's just that when that word is used in such close proximity to "Mennonite" and "poetry," my synapses start jamming--isn't it poetry that saves me when my traditions fail? Hostetler acknowledges the disturbance, but tries to make currents flow smoothly by evoking the Mennonite "artistic tradition" of congregational a cappella singing:
Voices, unaccompanied by other instruments, harmonize in a spiritual expression of community through music, a form of unadorned singing that has been one of the few consistent artistic traditions among Mennonites since the Reformation…. The voices of the poets in this anthology, unlike those that blend in the singing of hymns, are distinctive and individual. But their conjoined presence in this volume creates a concert that reflects a varied legacy from Mennonite faith and culture. (xiv)
I can't make that leap from congregational singing to poetry anthology without feeling like I've been bamboozled. Somewhere in the middle are those "distinctive and individual" voices that do not try to speak for the family or the congregation or the conference or the denomination or the religion. Rather, it is more likely that these Mennonite voices are speaking to the aforesaid groups. Okay, yes, maybe "concert" is the right word.
Hostetler certainly does not try to hide the difficulties Mennonite poets have in being heard by the church. Her scholarly Afterword documents "The Troubled Birth of the Artist in Mennonite Culture" with names, dates, places, anecdotes, references, and analysis. Yet, most of the poets in this anthology write poems that would not even be included in a "Mennonite" anthology published by a university press, let alone by a denominational publisher because not everything they write serves the interests of the denomination's institutions, ethics, spirituality, or culture (either experiential or mythological). She puts an optimistic spin on it, though, by claiming "The emergence of this poetry has begun to transform the ways in which contemporary Mennonites understand their own faith and culture" (xiv). Which poetry? Which contemporary Mennonites? In the last paragraph of the book, she clarifies her definition of "Mennonite" readers, those with "a new openness to poetic forms," as "literate Mennonites" (189). A revised and limited version of Hostetler's thesis would be something like "Mennonites who know how to read poetry will read poetry by Mennonites and begin to see themselves in various new lights." That may be vision enough. Poets are sensitive people. More responsibility than that may be more than they could bear.
The communal model Hostetler creates to justify this anthology seems to reflect her personal quest to find a community in which she, as a Mennonite poet, can feel at home. Her anecdote about listening to Galway Kinnell talk about his Mennonite student Julia Spicher (Kasdorf) is entertaining and thought provoking. Hostetler was at a luncheon in 1989 with other graduate students when Kinnell mentioned "Mennonites" and "poetry" in the same sentence; Hostetler's worlds collided:
My gut wrenched…. My palms began to sweat. I usually tried to pass as a "nondescript Protestant" in the outside world. Outsiders seemed only to remember extreme stories about Mennonites; coming out to outsiders about one's Mennonite origins required elaborate historical and theological explanations that seemed to confound instead of illuminate…. After the luncheon, I privately confessed my Mennonite identity…. (xvi)
What followed this turning point was her gradual discovery of other Mennonite poets publishing in the "outside" world, and her wish to create an anthology of Mennonite poets--both as a way to literally place herself in that community (she includes a selection of her own poems) and to provide a beacon for others who may feel unconnected. "How different my sense of myself as a writer and a Mennonite might have been," she writes, "if I had had access to such evidence of a vital literary tradition among the people of my faith and culture" (xviii).
While Hostetler claims to have "discovered" a thread of common themes in the poems she chose for this anthology (xviii), I wonder if she might have simply chosen good poems that resonated with her own concerns about the relationship between the artist and the Mennonite community. Every Mennonite poet may, indeed, have to explore this theme at some point. Some of these poems speak to each other. Some speak to their communities of origin. Some speak with humor or sarcasm. Some with curiosity and imagination. Some with nostalgia. Some with such unresolved pain that their words seem to puddle on the page. Faced with an obsessive theme, I'm glad for variety in style.
Hostetler's models are the people she has her eyes on, poets worthy of study and imitation. These poets have been published by literary and scholarly as well as by religious publishers. Most have won awards. All except the youngest (she arranges them by age) have been teachers; most are professors. Some have worked as editors or journalists. Many write prose, both fiction and nonfiction. Of the twenty-four poets, seventeen are women. All have some connection to Mennonites. This brief list of categories, of course, raises even more questions about who's in and who's out. Is getting "in" as much about credentials as quality? An editorial discussion on poetic quality may have been as helpful and interesting to some readers as the editorial overview and discussion of Mennonite identity. But maybe literary literacy is assumed--plenty of information is available via the broader culture--while minority cultural literacy is not. Neither discussion, of course, ever reaches resolution.
If this is your introduction to Mennonite poets and poetry, Hostetler presents a rich selection for your consideration. These are good poems (I say, as an English teacher). If you already have a favorite Mennonite poet, she or he is probably in the book. Many of these are well known to readers already interested in poetry by Mennonites. Beware of assuming you will know them all, however. Several newer voices speak with surprising power. In the spirit of community, I'll merely speak of them as a group. In the spirit of individualism, I hope you'll read them for yourself.
Instructor, Bethel College